Alex and PJ chase down the strangest tips from our Weird Ads hotline, and at the bottom of the rabbit hole they find the Mother of All AdWords Scams.
Google’s statement on our episode:
Our goal is to provide a great experience for the users, advertisers, and publishers that interact with our advertising products everyday. An important part of this work is listening to reactions—good, bad, and in-between—from our users about their experiences online. We appreciate this very much; it helps us make AdWords better. Bad ads are an industry-wide issue and we fight them with considerable fire-power: we’ve invested in best-in-class technology and built a global team of more than 1,000 googlers specifically dedicated to this effort. While this work has produced positive results—we disabled 780 million ads for violating our policies in 2015 alone—we understand this is an ongoing challenge for everyone and we’ll continue to battle it.
ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
ALEX: So a couple weeks ago, we did something that we’ve never done before.
PJ: Something kinda dangerous.
ALEX: I don’t know if I would call it dangerous.
PJ: Depends on your definition of danger.
ALEX: Your definition of danger is incredibly mild.
ALEX: We opened up the Reply All tip line, basically. We solicited —
PJ: Not basically! We opened up a tip line. Play the tip line music.
[Piano music plays]
ALEX: So we reported a story a couple weeks ago and it was about this sort of shady world of online scams that was just so vast that we couldn’t cover it on our own.
PJ: Right, there was no way to know like what scams were out there because scammers aren’t super great self-reporters.
ALEX: Yeah. But our listeners are actually great self-reporters, because they had a bunch of stories about almost being scammed, actually being scammed, that like took the reporting of the story so much further, um, and …
PJ: Stories that I don’t know, actually.
PJ: Okay, so wait, just quick recap for people who missed two episodes ago — which, you should go back and listen, but if you missed it …
ALEX: A couple weeks ago, we did a story about a website called YellowCabNYC.com. And the idea of this website was, if you lost something in a cab you’d pay this website $47 and they were supposed to help you find the thing that you lost, but —
PJ: But they just took your money instead.
ALEX: They just took your money.
PJ: Also it was a website that like a normal person would think was the website for the New York City, like, taxi bureau, but it wasn’t.
ALEX: So we were curious about how a website like this could possibly exist and it turns out that the reason that it is – it is in existence and so frequently used is because it appeared at the top of the Google search results because the person who owned it paid for Google AdWords.
PJ: Basically, it was like they were buying ads that looked a lot like search results, so if you searched like, “New York City Taxi department lost item,” you’d get an ad that would direct you to this website and you might think that you were talking to the government, like to the taxi bureau, but in fact you were talking to this other guy who was completely unaffiliated with the government.
ALEX: And PJ, in all of his great humility, shared a story very similar to this one.
PJ: Yeah, where I thought I was talking to Delta Airlines and instead I was talking to a scammer and gave them my sister’s credit card and —
PJ: — they took money away.
ALEX: I don’t think you mentioned that detail.
PJ: No, I don’t think I did.
PJ: So at the end of the episode we asked people if they had encountered, like, scammy or weird Google AdWords experiences. Like, did you search for something and end up at a business that wasn’t a real business and … you have gotten responses from people?
ALEX: This goes so deep, we got so many stories, it’s —
PJ: It’s our Watergate?
ALEX: — insane. I think [laughs] — I think that you’re giving us too much credit. But we were really surprised at the number of responses we got.
PJ: Who’s we?
ALEX: Me —
PJ: You and Chloe?
ALEX: Producer Chloe Prasinos, intern Thane Fay, we were the people who —
PJ: A whole team.
ALEX: Who dug through, I mean, there were a lot of them.
ALEX: Yeah, a lot. I would say a couple hundred, if not more.
PJ: I didn’t realize it was that, I thought it was going to be like ten.
ALEX: No, it was quite a few.
PJ: Before we get into this, can I tell you a piece of listener response I did get that I really don’t appreciate?
ALEX: Uh, I think I might know what you’re about to talk about? But I’m interested to hear.
PJ: A lot of people tweeted at me and were just like, “You’re dumb.”
ALEX: [Laughs] Yeah.
PJ: “You shouldn’t have fallen for it. I’m smart and I wouldn’t have fallen for it.” Which like, congratulations for you! Like what, you’re pro-scam? Like you’re like, “In the world there should be scams, and dummies like you should fall for them.” I’m sorry, I am on the side of dummies like me.
PJ: Why are you pro-scam? Like, why are you like … it’s like, I’m not asking for like guardrails around my bed or whatever, like I just want it to be — I’d like it to be harder for people to trick me than it is right now. So I just wanted to get that out of the way. So besides that I didn’t see any listener responses.
ALEX: What we saw from listeners was not so much like everybody had their own unique scam, but there were like scam trends, basically.
PJ: Scam trends?
ALEX: They fell into a couple categories. And there were certain scams that happened a lot more than others. So first off, there were ones that you’d totally expect to be scams, where like, if you fell victim to it you’d sort of be like, “Okay, that makes sense that I got scammed” — like ticket scalpers.
PJ: Oh yeah.
ALEX: Like ticket scalping websites, you’re just like, “Oh, you’re just priming yourself to get scammed.” But then there were a lot that were for, like, government services. Like things that were, that you probably do once every four years, but it’s been long enough that you don’t remember if it costs money or not. So it was like, signing up for Obamacare exchanges.
PJ: Fake websites that pretend to be Obamacare.
PJ: When I lived in Pennsylvania, there’s a fake DMV site for Pennsylvania.
ALEX: That was another one. Fake DMV sites. We actually talked to a guy named John Clark who works for the Delaware division of Fish and Wildlife. And he said that there’s a fake fishing license —
ALEX: — website called FishingLicense.org.
ALEX: And it does have a disclaimer — a lot like YellowCabNYC.
PJ: So like a small disclaimer that you wouldn’t notice.
ALEX: At the —
PJ: Or you might not notice.
ALEX: And it says, like, it looks like it’s gonna help you sign up for your fishing license, but instead what it does is send you —
PJ: Let me guess. A PDF.
ALEX: [Laughs] It’s, it’s actually more insulting?
ALEX: It’s like, not only do you get a PDF that has information on things like great fishes to grill, you also get an audiobook about how to sign up for your fishing license.
PJ: Do we have the audiobook?
DAN MCDERMOTT: Learning how to fish is part of the process to become a fisherman.
However in order to become a complete fisherman, you must not only acquire a significant amount of practice but you must also know where to go and which tips to keep in mind.
ALEX: And I asked John, like, okay, so how much does a fishing license cost in Delaware?
PJ: You didn’t know?
ALEX: No, I had no idea. Why, does that surprise you?
ALEX: [Laughs] And he was like, “Well, it’s eight bucks for in-state residents,” and then I was like, “How much is —”
PJ: “How much are they charging?”
ALEX: “How much are they charging for the pamphlet on how to sign up for your fishing license?” And he was like, “24 bucks!”
PJ: [Laughs] God! What else, what other scams did you hear from the hotline?
ALEX: This actually kind of blew my mind — so we spoke to this woman, her name’s Erica Brunner. And she told me that she had an unplanned pregnancy in 2008 and she decided to get an abortion. And she lives in Washington DC, which has some of the least restrictive abortion laws in the country. So she decided, “Well, I’m just gonna Google ‘abortion clinic.’”
ERICA BRUNNER: And a lot of results came up, and I just kind of clicked the top one. And it looked close and easy to access. Um, you know, I was [laughs] didn’t have a lot of money to travel very far. So it was Metro accessible, so I just called and said, you know, I was pregnant, and that, you know, I wanted to talk to someone about my options. You know, it’s like a really uncomfortable conversation to like call up a stranger, and be like, “Hi, I need an abortion.”
Um … and they were like, “Great, come on in,” like, you know, “We’re happy to talk to you about that.”
ALEX: And when she got there, rather than counseling her for an abortion — or giving her an abortion — they give her an ultrasound and then handed her a printout.
ERICA: They gave it to me, they gave me a picture, and they were like, “Here, you know, to show your partner and to keep with you,” basically, and I was just like, “Why would I want this?” Um [laughs], you know, I got – I got a little bit angry, you know, and they were just like, “Oh it’s standard procedure, we give it to everybody.” And you know, I think they could tell I was agitated, um, because I was like, “I don’t really understand why I needed an ultrasound right now,” you know, it just didn’t even make any sense to me like from a healthcare perspective.
ALEX: So it turns out that Erica wasn’t at an abortion clinic. She was actually at what’s called a Crisis Pregnancy Center. Which is … essentially, like, a pro-life operation that tries to counsel women out of getting abortions.
PJ: So they were using Google AdWords to, like, essentially mislead people who intended to get abortions. It was like, “No no no, you’re gonna show up here and we’re going to, like, shame you.”
PJ: That sucks.
ALEX: Yes. It does.
So, we asked people about what kind of scams they’d encountered, and we heard about all these crazy scams. But we also heard something that I totally didn’t expect, which was — there are people who listen to the show and have worked inside.
ALEX: Of Google.
PJ: Ohhh. Wow. What were you able to learn and what can you say?
ALEX: A lot.
PJ: OK, ‘cause just to recap — like, one of the difficulties that we encountered with this story is that Google is a black box, they do not talk about the decisions that they make internally to reporters, to anybody, like almost ever.
ALEX: Right. And as usual, I reached out to Google and they wouldn’t talk to us on the record. They did give us a statement, that I’ll put up on the website …
ALEX: … it’ll be in the notes for the episode but honestly, they didn’t give us any new information. But I spoke to someone who I’ll call Tabitha. That’s not her real name. She spoke to us on condition of anonymity. And to protect her identity, we had an actor re-record her responses. And for a few years Tabitha’s job was that she answered the AdWords customer service phone line.
ALEX: And that basically meant that she was talking to people who either were having problems with their ads or had their account shut down by Google entirely. So it was either people trying to get right with the company, or just really, really angry spammers.
PJ: Got it.
TABITHA: OK, if you got hit with like, the no no no stick and you were mad about it, then you spoke to me. Yeah. [laughs]
ALEX: So Tabitha worked inside the black box, and she was willing to talk to us about what she saw inside of it. And the stuff that she saw inside of the black box was nuts. So, just one example: she would fairly regularly get calls from people who bought ads for pornography on Google AdWords.
ALEX: And they were like furious because no one was clicking on them.
TABITHA: So we’d have advertisers who would call in and say things like, “I’m getting zero clicks, I’m getting zero impressions, what’s wrong?” And I’d look at their keywords, and [laughs] it’d be like because their keywords were like, “Sexy girls. Pretty girls.”
ALEX: Tabitha says that Google didn’t want a 12-year-old searching, like, “pretty girls,” and then getting served a porn ad. So they would coach these advertisers to use keywords that were explicitly … very explicit.
TABITHA: Then I’d have to like coach them through, like, “You’re not going to be able to show up as ‘sexy girls’ in the system, so I need you to write like, ‘Anal —’”
TABITHA: “‘— creampie threesome.’ That’s like, your keywords.” I’m coaching them how to make their keywords dirtier.
ALEX: So their keywords need to be explicitly porn-y. There needs to be no ambiguity.
ALEX: So another group that called Tabitha constantly with complaints were psychics and fortune tellers who advertised on Google. And there’s nothing wrong with that advertisement, but they can’t make claims like they will fix you in any way. They can’t make claims that their love potion works. They can only say, um, like, “We offer love potions!”
ALEX: So — and so people would call her and she’d say like, “Uh, I’m really sorry, you just can’t use that language.” And they’d say, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. I have — I have powers.”
TABITHA: Yeah. They really really, truly believe that, like, what they’re offering is a valid service. I had someone offer to cast three spells of my choosing if I could get her website [quietly laughing] back up. One time, it ended with someone like cursing me. Like literally just start chanting into the phone. I was like, “Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you there?” And she’s like, “Hold on, I’m cursing you.” [Laughs] And I, like, didn’t know what to do with that. So I sat there for like five or six minutes, ‘cause it like went on way longer [laughing quietly] than I thought it would.
PJ: [Laughs] Wait, I have so many questions. Did the curse work?
ALEX: I asked that. She said no. I asked if she was tempted to do the -–
PJ: The three spells.
ALEX: — the three spells, and she said yes.
PJ: Oh my god, that’s great. Also, does that mean they have to test, like, love potions just to be sure?
ALEX: [Laughs] I don’t think so. You’re allowed to advertise love potions, you’re just not allowed to make claims about their efficacy.
PJ: It feels like it’s holding the whole love potion market back, but whatever.
ALEX: [Laughs] But the actual question we had for Tabitha, was like, how does Google AdWords decide what ads it takes down, and what ads it leaves up — and what she told me was that when she worked at Google, scammers were always asking her that question.
ALEX: They’d call up and say like, “I wanna follow your rules. I looked at the Google AdWords policy, and I’m doing everything right but I can’t figure out why you don’t like my ads. And what Tabitha told me was that internally, Google has a much more detailed list of rules that they keep private.
TABITHA: And the reason why we don’t make them publically available is because we’re actually not interested, necessarily, if you follow the letter of the law if, like, your website — in spirit — is still in violation. But rather, we think that, uh, a website that is following, like, the spirit of the law would have these five things.
But we don’t make that public because kind of the more details you provide, the easier it is to figure out that these are the tiny things I need to change in order to, like, get around the system.
PJ: You know — kind of smart.
ALEX: I also think that it’s pretty smart.
PJ: But it’s also annoying, ‘cause it’s like, I would like to know the rules. I’d like to know why this is okay and this isn’t okay. Like I want to know what it is that allows YellowCabNYC to stay up.
ALEX: Yeah, totally me too. And you and I had this other theory that maybe YellowCabNYC survived not because it was following the rules but because Google just had bigger fish to fry. And it turns out that there was.
TABITHA: Oh, can I just, like, briefly talk about locksmiths?
ALEX: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Talk about locksmiths!
TABITHA: Locksmiths are so, so shady. So when someone would call into the customer service line, my phone would ring but then also their account would pop up, and I would be able to — before I even answered the phone call — see what type account it was. And if it was a locksmith, I just immediately, like, slumped down in my chair.
PJ: Coming up after the break, we dive into a world so complicated and nefarious, it makes everything else we’ve seen look like a kindergarten class where everybody gets along really well. Stick around.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show. So, PJ, after Tabitha told me about how shady she found locksmiths, I started looking into them, and it turns out that there is this gigantic syndicate of locksmith fraudsters who’ve figured out basically how to outmaneuver Google and make a ton of money in the process. Like, do you remember that part in Jurassic Park where that guy is sort of cornered by a bunch of velociraptors and then he’s like, “Clever girl,” and then they attack him?
PJ: Why does he say “clever girl?”
ALEX: Because he can’t believe how smart and organized and intelligent these velociraptors are.
PJ: And that’s his thought before they eat him?
ALEX: Yeah. [In voice] Clever girl.
PJ: So how does it work, how do they prey?
ALEX: Let me explain.
ALEX: Let’s say you’re locked out of your house, very similar situation to leaving something in a cab. You’re panicked, you’re trying to figure out the quickest solution. You Google “locksmiths,” you’ll get a ton of ads that say, “$15 locksmiths near you.”
PJ: Which is crazy, actually. Locksmiths are really expensive.
ALEX: Right. So you click through. You get a phone number. You call that phone number and it’ll route you to a call center …
WOMAN: Service line, my name is Kathy, how can I help you?
ALEX: Yeah, I’m calling about the fifteen dollar …
… and the person will say like, “Yeah we’re – we’re right by you. We’ve got a – we’ve got a place right by you. In fact, you can look it up on Google Maps. We’re right by you.”
ALEX: Is the call center in Brooklyn?
WOMAN: Yes sir.
ALEX: Where in Brooklyn is it?
ALEX: Ok, do you know what subway stop it’s near?
WOMAN: [Long pause] That I do not know, sir.
ALEX: They’re lying of course. What’s really happening is that you’re talking to a call center, which could be anywhere in the country or the world.
ALEX: And they, like, subcontract with these very young, kind of not-that-good locksmiths, who drive around the city, and will show up at your house. And when they get there they’ll say, “Oh, it’s much worse than I thought. I’m going to have to drill your lock. It’s gonna cost three hundred bucks.”
ALEX: You should open up your computer actually and Google “locksmith near me.”
PJ: Near —
ALEX: And just see what the AdWords come up.
PJ: OK. “Locksmiths near me.” Oh man, it’s all them. “$15 service call. Brooklyn locksmiths.” Um … it’s four fake—I mean it’s four of these $15 outfits. Oh my god, it makes it look like my neighborhood is basically like the locksmith district.
ALEX: So, I talked to New York Times reporter David Segal, who actually wrote this great article earlier this year about these locksmithing scams.
ALEX: How you doin’?
DAVID: I’m doing well, doing well.
And as we were talking, I realized that like this exact scam… it happened to me. So I told David about it.
Alex: I can say anecdotally, that in 2012, uh, the lock on my apartment door broke. I had to call a locksmith. The first thing they did was drill my lock open.
Alex: Uh, subsequently, uh, charged me $300, and then a couple of a days later, the landlord sent somebody to take a look at it, and was like, “Who was the idiot you called to do this?” And I was like, “Well …”
DAVID: Who was the idiot? Like do you remember anything about, about the locksmith?
Alex: Oh god. I have no idea. I just called the first number that I saw in Google.
DAVID: And what was this person, describe the person that came to fix your lock?
ALEX: He went very quickly to the drill.
ALEX: And he gave me a new lock and new keys.
DAVID: Did he have an accent?
ALEX: Uh, yes he did.
DAVID: What kind of accent?
ALEX: He was Israeli.
DAVID: Okay [laughs] welcome! Welcome to locksmith spam. You’ve, you’ve been had.
ALEX: What is the connection between locksmithing and Israelis? Like, why is that … I – I mean, I [laughs] it just sounds, um, it sounds like a weird — it almost sounds like a stereotype. And I’m just, like, trying to understand, like, how Israelis managed to corner this market or why.
DAVID: It’s such a great question. I was fascinated by this. Um, how did this happen? Like, I – I dug and I dug and I dug, and, like, almost everyone I found was an Israeli. To the point where Israelis who had gone legit … would say to me, “I have a hard time getting material from lock sellers because they think that we give them a terrible reputation. And they just hear my Israeli accent and they say, ‘I’m not selling to you.’” So the best that I could figure out is that, um, the original guys behind this were Israeli. Uh, and I – I searched and searched for the first, um, of the locksmith fraudsters, and everyone told me is was this guy named Gilad Gill.
ALEX: So, David had someone send Gilad a message. And eventually, he got a phone call from a private number. It was Gilad.
DAVID: And I asked him, like, “Where — how’d you come up with this – with this idea?” And, it came, he said, from a guy who had done the same thing but with the yellow pages. He had – he had purchased, like, dozens and dozens of yellow page ads, so that when you opened the yellow pages, uh, you would see like, ‘AAA Locksmith. A1A Locksmith.’ There’d be like 30 different locksmiths.
DAVID: And they were all going to one, uh, one company. And so Gilad just took that idea, and said, “Well, if that’ll work with a phone book in one city, it can work on the Internet with dozens of cities.”
ALEX: So Gilad decided to try it. And he would hire young Israelis for the work.
DAVID: There literally are ads on job sites in Israel that are inviting young people to come to the United States and work for a locksmith. And the – this flow of – of people, they come and they work and they figure out, like, “Oh, here’s how this system works.” And then they go off and they start their own.
ALEX: And as more people start using Gilad’s scam, you end up with these competing locksmith cartels and they are cutthroat, they are ruthless. I talked to an Israeli locksmith who was so frightened by potential repercussions from these cartels that I literally can’t tell you anything else about him other than the fact that I talked to him.
ALEX: So one of the reasons that these guys are able to do this is because Google has this thing called Google Map Maker, which is basically like Wikipedia for Google Maps. So since anybody can edit it, these scammers will just add locations for their business like all over the country, basically.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: Which sucks for actual locksmiths who have brick and mortar shops and aren’t trying to, like, rip you off. I talked to this guy named Charley Eastwood. He’s a locksmith, he’s a good old-fashioned legit locksmith, and he works in Arizona. And he first noticed these scammers in 2007, and he thought that basically what they were doing was fraud, so he decided to go to court.
CHARLEY EASTWOOD: In, uh, late 2010 I filed a lawsuit against 11 different companies of locksmith scammers. Around that time period I was interviewing other locksmiths, suppliers, etc., and I said, “But, you know, how many locks- legitimate locksmiths companies do you think there are in Arizona?” And the general consensus was somewhere between three and five hundred.
ALEX: So Charley sent a subpoena to this data mining company called Acxiom for all of the locksmith listings that they had in Arizona.
CHARLEY: They sent me 196 … pages.
CHARLEY: With 9,600 listings. Which is approximately 9,000 more listings than we believe are legitimate locksmiths in the state.
ALEX: Charley’s lawsuits didn’t do him a lot of good. He says that one of the companies settled for $20,000, and all of his other suits were dismissed.
CHARLEY: Nobody gives a damn anymore.
ALEX: So as a locksmith who is trying to deal with sort of this flood of people who are advertising themselves online, like, what’s it like to be up against that? Like, what does it do to your business, how do you deal with it?
CHARLEY: My – my new customer calls have decreased approximately 100% since 2007.
ALEX: Um, so when you say they’ve decreased 100 percent, what does that mean? Are you getting zero new customer calls?
CHARLEY: That means maybe … maybe once a week or maybe once a month I will get a random call from a new customer because they’re very close to me and Google has popped me up on their phone instead of one of the criminals.
ALEX: So Charley is basically pretty fatalistic about this. He doesn’t think this is going to get fixed. But I did talk to a guy named Dan Austin who was doing battle with Map Maker scammers from inside Google Map Maker.
PJ: Like he worked for Google Map Maker?
ALEX; No, no no, he was just another volunteer. And when he first started doing the volunteering, he was just doing what you would imagine — he was fixing road names, and locations, and then he started noticing something that looked really weird.
DAN AUSTIN: You’d have a gas station with a cluster of, you know, two or three locksmiths at that gas station that shared the same address. And you’d be like, “That doesn’t make sense.” Or a doctor’s office that has a locksmith in residence.
ALEX: And so when Dan figures out what’s going on, he sort of rolls up his sleeves and he’s like, “OK cool, you guys wanna play rough? I’m going to dedicate hours of my day to deleting all of your fake locations.” So each time he’d spot a fake, he’d flag it.
DAN: And then someone at Google would approve it and the listing would just disappear from Google Maps.
DAN: I deleted like thousands of listings. So it was having a traumatic effect on the spammers’ business.
ALEX: And so Dan is riding high, he’s feeling good about the volunteering he’s doing for Google Map Maker, he’s correcting all these mistakes. And then, Dan started noticing that other Map Maker volunteers were erasing his work. They were going into his edits and undoing them.
DAN: If you had two people denying your edits, that would completely cancel out, um, the deletion.
Dan had no idea who was blocking his edits, but he realized that a lot of these fake locksmith places traced back to one guy —
DAN: I – I don’t even think this is his real name, but this is his name that he used — he – his name was Boten Sason and he ran a series of, uh, locksmith spam operations — Texas and California, Washington, Oregon. He was one of the big call center operators.
And Boten did not like what was happening to all of his fraudulent locksmith listings on Google Maps.
DAN: So Boten Sason employed a couple of his call center operators to block me from, uh, deleting the listings. So I remember one night I was just getting into this frustrating battle with trying to delete all these listings and they block them and … so, uh, several hours worth of work just, poof, went up in the air. And then that’s when he called me.
ALEX: And it turns out the reason this guy Boten called Dan … was to say, “You’re wasting my time, I’m wasting your time — how about we just call a truce?”
DAN: We basically struck a deal. Which was I would leave his listings alone for X amount of time … and he would help me turn in his fellow spammers. ‘Cause that would, basically, give him more calls, more money.
PJ: [Whispers] What?
ALEX: So he basically had like a mole on the inside of the locksmith world who was like offering up competing cartels to him.
PJ: But – but … in accepting the help of that mole, he was letting one of the cartels go — it’s like when somebody’s like a mob informant but then they’re doing hits the whole time that they’re talking to the cops.
ALEX: Yeah, that’s true, but, I mean Dan only guaranteed the guy six months of protection and then he was gonna delete his locations anyway. And Dan sort of thought of himself as like a stop-gap solution, like someone who would be fighting the problem until Google came up with like a more robust solution, and they would step in and solve the problem, erase the scammers. But Google never did. So Dan ended up totally losing his faith in Google and he did something a little drastic.
ALEX: He wanted to demonstrate to Google how sort of faulty their record-keeping and maintenance of Maps got and he decided to [laughs] illustrate – do this by going to Los Angeles on Google Maps —
ALEX: — and placing a marijuana grow room in the center of Los Angeles on the map.
ALEX: Not, like, a pot dispensary, but just like, “Marijuana Grow House.”
PJ: [Laughs] So what happened?
ALEX: Google fired him … from his unpaid job. They revoked his ability to edit the maps because they were like, “Well, you’re just vandalizing.”
PJ: Ugh. That sucks.
PJ: The other thing it makes me realize, I guess, is when we were working on just like the taxi cab scam part of this, and we were like, “Google just doesn’t care enough and they need to pay attention more,” it’s like, I feel like now — now I have this feeling that they were like, “Oh we’ll make a thing called Map Maker and then people can helpfully edit maps.” And actually what happens with Map Maker is people in other countries do complicated scams and Google gets involved in this weird, like, war between locksmiths which has actually been going on since like the yellow pages and it’s just like, all such a headache, like I actually feel sort of bad for them?
Like I wonder if they don’t just like go out and get drinks with the guy who invented the yellow pages and just like hug each other and talk about how hard everything is?
ALEX: [laughs] I think that — I think every time Google makes something, they’re like, “This is gonna be so cool, I can’t wait to see how this appears in the world.” And then like some jerk manages to destroy it.
PJ: Or like multiple jerks. They’re like, “Oh, this will be good for my scams, thank you.”
ALEX: Yeah, that’s about right.
ALEX: OK so that’s what we learned from the tip line. And I feel like we need to thank everybody for getting in touch with us because…
PJ: It was crazy.
ALEX: You gave us way more leads than we could possibly have followed, and we just went after a few of them, but like, you were incredibly helpful.
ALEX: But independent of the tip line, I also continued to follow up on Mark Jakubczak, the guy who started YellowCabNYC, the website that sort of sent us on this whole crazy quest in the first place.
ALEX: And I have news.
ALEX: I’d say, Monday? I was just Googling “lost and found taxi.”
PJ: How often do you do this now?
ALEX: Every day. Probably four times a day.
PJ: [Laughs] Your life.
ALEX: So I was Googling [laughs] “lost and found taxi,” and a website came up … an ad for a website came up called USTaxiCabs.com.
PJ: Oh no.
ALEX: USTaxiCabs.com is basically the exact same site as YellowCabNYC, except instead of catering to like New York alone, it’s for the entire United States. And so I sent Mark Jakubczak an email.
PJ: And asked him if this new nationwide version of it was his as well?
ALEX: Yeah. It said, I sent him an email that said …
PJ: It’s like Batman emailing the Riddler.
ALEX: “Hi Mark, we’re planning on doing a follow up on our episode from a few weeks ago. We saw a new website pop up that functions in a very, very similar way called USTaxiCabs.com. I was curious if that was you. And I was also wondering if you’d be willing to talk to us this time around. Thanks for your time. Yours, Alex.” He wrote back one line.
PJ: [Laughs] What was the one line?
ALEX: It said … “No. That’s not me. It’s probably one of your listeners. Google banned my site. Please don’t contact me anymore.”
ALEX: The next day USTaxiCabs.com was gone.
ALEX: Now, I did send an email to USTaxiCabs.com saying, “Hey, whoever runs this site, will you do an interview with me?” They didn’t get back to me. And while I have no proof that the site was run by Mark, the submission form looked exactly the same, the database of lost items looked like it was built using the same program, and both USTaxiCabs.com and all of Mark’s websites are registered with namecheap.com. So again, I have no proof that it was Mark, but circumstantial evidence points to it being him.
PJ: Can I tell you something that surprises me?
ALEX: What’s that?
PJ: I feel kinda sad.
PJ: I feel bad for him. That Google banned his site that I don’t think should’ve existed.
ALEX: [Laughs] Yeah, your, um, empathy valve needs to be tightened.
PJ: Wow [laughs]. So less empathy will come out of it?
PJ: [Laughing] That is so gross! OK. Wow. Man, that’s crazy. He’ll strike again. So it was like, most of what you found … is sad-making.
PJ: I found something also.
ALEX: Oh really?
PJ: I did, yes. Like, our original theory was that this kind of scam is really good at targeting people who … are in a state of panic, who need to find a service that they wouldn’t ordinarily use. So it’s like, I mean, for me, Delta. But for everybody else like, what, locksmiths, uh, [laughs] fishing licenses, DMV —
PJ: — I found another one.
PJ: I found another like scenario that is similar to those: losing your wedding ring.
ALEX: [Gasps] [Pause] Ohhhhhh.
PJ: Which has happened to you.
PJ: And felt bad.
ALEX: Fortunately, both times I lost it —
ALEX: — ehhh, that feels bad to say. Um, it was somewhere in my house.
PJ: So I talked to this guy named Tim Davin. He got married less than six months ago.
ALEX: Poor guy.
PJ: Well, he’s happy in his marriage. Um.
ALEX: I just know it’s – I understand, I think that —
PJ: You’re anticipating where this is going.
PJ: He said literally from his wedding night, he was worried about losing his wedding ring. He was like, asking his in-laws like, “How do you not lose your wedding ring?” So, he and his wife, uh, I think this month, like a few weeks ago, they went um to the beach together. South Carolina.
[Sighs] They’re, they have this like nice day, like sitting on the sand, drinking, and he’s like, “You know what? I’m gonna go for a swim and cool off.”
PJ: Walked in the water.
TIM DAVIN: It wasn’t really like rough, or windy. I mean it was like great weather. And I went out and probably got like up to my waist maybe? And the first wave that hit me like immediately sucked my ring like off my finger.
TIM: And it’s, like in Lord of the Rings when like, the ring flips up in into the air —
TIM: — and Gollum’s like trying to reach for it in slow motion, it was just like that. And you can’t see any, it’s the ocean. So I’m like, trying to wildly like grab around, like, hope I can scoop it. And … and so we kind of searched around, like doing this weird like salamander crawl in —
TIM: — the surf trying to like scan the bottom. It’s like, “Is this it?” “Nope, this is a rock.” “Is this it?” “No, it’s a pull tab.” “Is this it?” “This is a seashell.”
ALEX: Whenever I, uh, swim in the ocean, I – and I have my wedding ring on, I ball my fist like an insane person because I’m terrified of my ring coming off.
PJ: He could learn from you.
ALEX: Yeah. How does he think that the internet’s gonna help him get this ring back?
TIM: I was like, well we should put something on Craigslist in “lost and found,” in the event that maybe it washes up after we leave.
PJ: So like an hour later they get an email. It says, “If you want your ring back you should call this phone number. This guy can help you.”
ALEX: [Whispers] That’s so sketchy.
PJ: Yeah. Yeah. But, they call the number. And the guy asks them all these questions, and then he says for them to meet him at the beach. And they go. They’re like he’s not gonna show up, but he actually shows up.
TIM: Sure enough, there’s the guy standing there with the metal detector and this crazy shovel that I’ve never seen before.
PJ: And so they guys says to Tim, “Show me where you think you lost the ring.”
TIM: So it’s like, “Alright. We were right here, and I couldn’t have been more than 30 feet out from like where the tide was coming in.” And he’s like, “Well, OK. Well that’s one end.” So he draws like a little slash in the sand, and starts going back in the other way.
PJ: But so at this point, you’re not thinking like, “This is the scam.” You’re thinking like, “This isn’t — this is like the Ghostbusters have shown up.”
TIM: Oh, a hundred percent. And, he’s like, “This might take two or three hours. I’ll call you when I find it.” And so at that point we left, and we’re ten minutes down the road, like heading to dinner, and my wife’s phone rings.
PJ: She picks up, she immediately freaks out. It’s the dude from the beach, and he’s got the ring.
ALEX: Come on!
PJ: Yes! And, uh, he’s like, “I knew we were going to find it, ‘cause, uh, when you told me that – that you guys were married, like when we were talking before I started searching, we have the same wedding anniversary.”
ALEX: Wh- what? He – he found … like a benevolent … like wedding ring diviner on Craigslist who went and found his wedding ring for free?
PJ: Not only that, really the benevolent wedding ring diviner found him. Like, it was, it turned out the person who emailed them was like the guy’s son-in-law. Who’s a police officer in town? And it’s like his father-in-law does this.
ALEX: So … are you telling me this as like an antidote to all of the gloom that I’ve been, uh, raining upon you?
PJ: Yes. But also, it goes so much deeper. So, the guy who found it, Jim. He belongs to an organization. The organization is called The Ring Finders.
ALEX: And is it like a national organization?
PJ: It’s an international organization.
ALEX: Get out of here!
PJ: Yes. So if you —
ALEX: [Laughs] That’s so ridiculous!
PJ: Yes. So, it’s run by this guy Chris Turner. I connected with him over FaceTime from his home in Vancouver.
CHRIS TURNER: My name is Chris Turner, CEO of TheRingFinders.com. When I get a call, I’m like a – I’m like a kid at Christmas. I’m just so excited to go out and do it.
PJ: The way it works, if you are anywhere in the world where there’s a ring finder — and they are all over the world — you go online and – and you would find their website. Which looks not real. Like it looks not real the way YellowCabNYC looks not real. Like it looks like — it’s not a slick website. But basically, it’s a directory of people. They pay dues. Most of them will charge you, but not much. And they will go out and they will do their best to find your ring with a metal detector. And —
ALEX: [Quietly] Oh my god.
PJ: — Ring Finders as an organization has found 2,966 recorded saves. So where they – they have the Book of Smiles, which is when they take a picture of you with —
PJ: — the jewelry they found for you.
ALEX: [Laughs] The Book of Smiles! [Smile-groans] The Book of Smiles sounds vaguely sinister.
PJ: They’re —
ALEX: Like it sounds like something that could — that like Freddy Krueger might have.
PJ: I’ve never found —
ALEX: [Freddy Krueger voice] “I’m gonna open my Book of Smiles. I’ve got a claw.” That’s my Freddy imp- [laughs] impression.
PJ: I don’t think Freddy tells people he has a claw. I think it’s like relatively self-evident.
ALEX: Well, you never know.
PJ: Um, I’ve never found a less sinister man, or a less sinister organization. Unless my people reading skills are way off. But like, so basically he said, in 1973, when he was, uh, let’s say 13 years old.
CHRIS: I was in the backyard with my metal detector that I just bought after working all summer for it. And, um, my neighbor looked up and she went, “Hey Christopher, what are you doing?” I told her, I said, “I got a metal detector, I’m looking for treasure.” And she goes, “Do you think you could find a ring?” And I said, “Yeah.” She was like, “I lost my ring like 10 years ago in my backyard gardening.” So I went up there, and I found it for her.
CHRIS: And the look on her face was shocked. As well as mine. I was so excited, I got apple pie for a year. Every week I’d get an apple pie.
CHRIS: She was so, so grateful and so happy. And it was just, you know, something you never forget as a kid. I’ve been fortunate to have made close to 500 saves now … coming up on 500 recoveries. That’s 500 smiles, times how many other people I’ve affected with that, and I’m extremely grateful to have the chance to help that many people.
PJ: He says that it’s still his favorite thing in the world, just finding other people’s rings.
ALEX: I love this guy.
PJ: I know. He’s really good.
ALEX: How did you hear about his?
PJ: Stumbled across it. Because the guy who originally lost his wedding ring, he just posted about it on Reddit, and people were really happy that it existed. And I saw this the week after all this happened with us. And it was just like, it felt like the antidote. I mean, not the antidote. It doesn’t fix it. But like … it felt like the karmic anecdote … antidote.
ALEX: There’s – there are countervailing forces in the world that are trying to instill goodness in the internet.
PJ: Yeah! And that like, if you’re — I mean it made me feel like … if you are a panicked person who needs help, yes, you could run into, like, a shady locksmith. Or Mark Jakubczak. But you could also get a Ring Finder.
ALEX: Thanks again to everybody who wrote in, and if you bump into more scams, please tell us about them. And if you happen to be a scammer yourself, drop me a line.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and me, Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Chloe Prasinos and Damiano Marchetti. Production assistance from Thane Fay. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We are edited by Peter Clowney. We were mixed by Rick Kwan. The actor who portrayed Tabitha is Gwen Lewicki. Special thanks to Sean Harding and extra special thanks to Rolo.
Matt Lieber is the director’s cut of Aliens. Not the theatrical release. Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder, and our ad music is by Build Buildings. You can listen to the show on iTunes or on any other podcast app. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.